The end of the Broadway season has been positively Shavian, with the tuneful twist on Pygmalion, My Fair Lady and Saint Joan back on the boards. It’s been 95 years since George Bernard Shaw, inspired by the Maid of Orleans’ canonization by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920, premiered the play in New York. Twenty-five years after her last crusade on the Main Stem, she’s back for a ride in our #MeToo era, befuddling the patriarchy as religious zeal and the machinations of church and state collide.
But it takes almost the entire first act of this three-hour play for the warrior woman who hears voices to find her own. Much of it is about men in power in 15th-century France passing the buck, trying to mold her for their own uses until she exhausts her purpose, leaving only her heart behind as she’s burned at the stake. As played by three-time Tony Award nominee Condola Rashad, the first black performer to play Joan on Broadway since Diana Sands 50 years ago, that heart is a large one. The second act is a spirited inquiry into the peasant girl’s peculiar heroism, as her saintly visions lead the French to numerous victories over the English occupiers but confound the Church, which exerts its own sovereignty over the nation. Scott Pask’s set is essentially the interior of a church organ, with large golden pipes hung about the stage, but there’s little music as the untidy affair reaches its tragic end.
Other than a few projections depicting battle, this is a talkfest, very simply staged by the Manhattan Theatre Club’s go-to director, Daniel Sullivan. The talk, however, is engaging, and Rashad gives a bright, quicksilver performance, setting into motion powerful forces that ultimately consume her, not without a fight. Her enablers and opponents – notably the stalwart Patrick Page and John Glover as a nobleman and an archbishop, Chicago director Walter Bobbie in clerical garb, Daniel Sunjata as the soldier Dunois, and Adam Chanler-Berat as the weak Dauphin – are a good match for her.
Shaw couldn’t leave his characters to their fate, so he contrived a bittersweet epilogue that brings some of them together on the celestial plane. It’s not “I Could Have Danced All Night,” but it brings Saint Joan to a satisfyingly stimulating close.